Governments and businesses must get to grips with AI, Tony Blair warns

Former British prime minister says UK at risk of being left behind by other countries embracing the technology

Former British prime minister Tony Blair. PA
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Governments and businesses need to “get to grips” with artificial intelligence as the emerging technology is set to “change everything”, Tony Blair said on Wednesday.

The former prime minister discussed the governance challenges that AI posed, alongside Microsoft president Brad Smith and British Chamber of Commerce leader Baroness Martha Lane Fox.

At the Chatham House event, the technology was compared to the printing press and the industrial revolution in terms of how the group thought it would change history.

“You can get the magnitude of that from these analogies of what we’re talking about. I think this will change everything,” Mr Blair told the audience.

“I think this is where we’re at – at the start of a revolutionary change.”

Mr Blair said that people, particularly on the centre-left of politics, could give priority to other difficulties amid the current turmoil but they should make AI their mission.

“How you understand, master and harness this technology revolution will define the place of this country and shape the world,” he said.

“So get your head around that and stop spending time thinking about: ‘A little bit more on tax, a little bit less on tax, more on spending, a little bit less on spending’.

“That is not what the future is going to be about. It’s going to be about this – understanding it and dealing with it, accessing the opportunity … but mitigating its risks.”

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The panel also spoke about how the UK needed to respond to the safety and social risks that AI posed.

They included the evolution of a two-tiered society, job losses, election interference, Russia’s superiority in cyber warfare, and the creation of bioweapons.

“The thing in all of this that I think makes a large constituent of people very, very anxious is about the increasing inequalities that are going to be, in my opinion, inevitable out of this," Baroness Lane Fox said.

She later said there had to be a “joined-up approach” in how companies and governments thought about these risks.

Those in leadership positions who were not getting to know this new technology were also committing a “dereliction of duty”, Baroness Lane Fox said.

“If you don’t understand what’s possible, you’re not going to be able to start to understand how to learn what the right policy decisions to make, [or] what’s the right commercial decisions to make.”

Mr Smith said: “What the world needs to see emerge, in effect, is a new paradigm for how to manage the safety of this new technology."

He said the international community needed to come to a consensus on how to standardise regulations around AI as soon as possible.

Mr Blair also said the UK government, which had ambitions for the country to be a leader in the field, must recognise that the technology was “changing very fast” and that Britain would need to have “close co-operation and partnerships with other key players”.

“Everyone’s on this,” Mr Blair said. “You go to Paris, Macron’s talking about it. You go to Germany, Scholz is talking about it. You go to Africa, they’re starting to talk about it.

“You’re either going to get to grips with this or you’re going to get left behind.”

Updated: June 28, 2023, 9:05 PM